President Trump's prepared remarks for his State of the Union address on Tuesday offered an argument for curtailing illegal immigration.
"We have a moral duty to create an immigration system that protects the lives and jobs of our citizens,” his speech read. “This includes our obligation to the millions of immigrants living here today, who followed the rules and respected our laws. Legal immigrants enrich our nation and strengthen our society in countless ways. I want people to come into our country, but they have to come in legally.”
Those were the prepared remarks. But instead Trump added another qualifier to that last line.
“I want people to come into our country in the largest numbers ever,” he said, “but they have to come in legally.”
That difference is ... not insignificant.
We should note at the outset that Trump’s line was intended, as was much of the speech, to promote the idea of building a wall on the border with Mexico. It’s a sales pitch he has made repeatedly over the course of this still-young year, with two speeches on the subject in January and a revisitation of it when he announced the end to the government shutdown. His lack of headway in convincing Americans of the need for a wall didn’t stop him from coming back to the idea on Tuesday.
But his riff above misses the mark for a different reason. Most illegal immigration these days results from immigrants who enter the country legally on visas — through airports or entering through border checkpoints — who then never leave. It looks more like the alleged situation with the rapper 21 Savage, accused of entering the country from Britain and remaining indefinitely, adopting the persona of a native of Georgia.
This is not the only bit of wall-related rhetoric deployed by Trump that ignores or obscures reality, of course. That misdirection is also not what attracted criticism from those who generally agree with Trump on immigration.
After Trump’s “largest numbers ever” ad-lib, Mark Krikorian, the executive director of the anti-immigration Center for Immigration Studies, tweeted, “like I’ve always said, the guy is not a restrictionist.” That is, Trump’s priority on immigration isn’t driving down the number of new immigrants broadly. Roy Beck, founder of Numbers USA, which similarly seeks to reduce immigration, joined the chorus: “This *is* the largest immigration wave ever.”
He shared a table to that effect, noting that the average annual number of new immigrants entering the United States since 1990 was at 1,000,000 — compared with the 584,000 annually who came at the turn of the last century during the Ellis Island period of immigration. In broad strokes, those data are accurate, as figures from the Migration Policy Institute show.
But there’s an important caveat that you probably already considered: The population of the United States itself was much smaller 100 years ago, meaning that the density of new immigrants in the population now pales to what it was at that point. Here’s legal immigration by year as a function of population.
In other words, were immigration under Trump to exceed even that spike in the early 1990s, the density of new immigrants in the population would still pale in comparison to the density of a century ago. (That spike, incidentally, followed the passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, at which point millions of undocumented immigrants gained legal status.)
But Trump doesn’t want immigration to exceed that spike, if his stated policy preferences are any guide. The steady increase in new immigrants, while less intense than a century ago, has pushed the density of immigrants in the population to its highest point since the early 1900s. Trump’s presidential campaign was predicated on immigration and leveraged concern over a spike in child migrants that arrived in 2014. As such, over the course of his presidency, Trump has taken concrete actions to limit migration into the United States and advocated for additional changes that would constrict in the inflow of new migrants.
Most obvious is the attention he has paid to the border with Mexico. Although his rhetoric about floods of immigrants skulking across the unprotected border is almost entirely hyperbole, he has called for reforms to the asylum-seeking process, a means for immigrants to enter the country legally while their claims of persecution are adjudicated by the government. That adjudication process is very slow and very backlogged, meaning that asylum seekers can often live in the United States for extended periods before their claims of asylum are evaluated. That’s legal immigration, though, and Trump wants to scale it back.
His ban on migration from mostly Muslim countries has a more direct effect of blocking new entrants to the United States. He has also advocated repeatedly for changes to the immigration system that would make it harder for new immigrants to sponsor family members for citizenship, a process that he disparages as chain migration (and a process from which his own family benefited). He has pushed for restricting the immigration process to only highly skilled new applicants, a change that if enacted would overhaul how the immigration process works.
None of these comports with the idea of a president who is actively seeking immigration to the country in the largest numbers ever.
So why did Trump insert that phrase into his speech? The obvious answer is that Trump was deploying a tactic that should be familiar to any observer of his speeches by this point: hyperbole.
If you consider the other phrases that Trump added to his prepared remarks (as tracked here by Media Matters’ Angelo Carusone), there’s a pattern: “very importantly,” “anywhere,” “by far,” “very unfair,” “big deal,” “very.” He would double up on words — billions and billions, way way down — for emphasis.
Trump’s addition of “in the largest numbers ever” was meant to emphasize the words that preceded it, that he wanted people to come to the country, in order to soften the words that followed: “but they have to come in legally.” What better way to emphasize that you welcome immigration than to welcome the most immigrants ever.
That’s not really what Trump wants, as he’s repeatedly made clear. Or, at least, he wants to implement the restrictions above while also embracing immigration as a concept, perhaps in part because that’s popular.
In other words, this one moment from Trump’s lengthy speech is a concise encapsulation of his approach to the presidency: say the thing the crowd wants to hear — but do what you were planning to do anyway.